The time before the release of 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was a period of transition for Bill Callahan. Looking back on that time, he recalled the following to Stephen Hyden:
“I moved out of Chicago to Austin, Texas because I was trying to make some big changes in my life. I suddenly wanted to live in a house instead of an apartment. I wanted a yard, I wanted a driveway to park my car, and all these things that are very hard to achieve in Chicago unless you have lots of money.”
Another change that Callahan wanted to implement at the time was a move away from Smog as the appellation under which he released his music. He explained that shift in the same 2022 interview with Hyden:
“I wanted to release A River Ain’t Too Much Love under my own name because of all these big changes. It was like, ‘What is this stupid name that doesn’t mean anything to me?’ Someone goes in a record store and they see something by Smog and that plants something in their head — could be appealing, could be unappealing. I didn’t want to plant this thing that didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t want to then expect people to be like, ‘Oh, I’ll ignore that name and I’ll listen to this record,’ which no one does. It was all part of starting over. But my record label — they apologized for this — but they freaked out and got scared when I said I wanted to use my name, for obvious reasons. So I went with Smog for that last record, and then I changed it on the next one. Some people are still confused, but as far as sales go, they stayed the same. It was not like I was starting from scratch in that respect.”
Besides his home and and band name, Callahan identifies a musical alteration as well:
“I also learned to finger-pick for [A River Ain’t Too Much Love], and I switched to nylon string, classical-style guitar. So, that was a big difference — learning a new thing, a new thing I was embracing. When you stop strumming and you start finger-picking, there’s a hole in the middle of the song. Because a guitar strummed is the center of the song, basically. If you take that away, that leaves a big space. I was trying to use my voice in the center instead of a strumming guitar with a voice on top.”
A River Ain’t Too Much Love was recorded at Pedernales Studio, located approximately 30 miles outside Callahan’s newly adopted hometown. The studio is owned by Willie Nelson, another singer-songwriter whose main style of guitar playing is finger picking on a classical guitar. The album opens with a solo musical passage by Callahan on his classical guitar that sounds remarkably similar to Willie Nelson. This introduction, beginning before the main chord progression, acts as a re-contextualization for Callahan and his music and serves as a reflection of the personal changes he was going through at the time. The sound of A River Ain’t Too Much Love has a dry, almost arid feel to it as if evoking the sense of place of Callahan’s new home in Texas. This musical atmosphere is especially felt in the album’s second song, “Say Valley Maker”:
The song opens once again with Callahan’s finger-picked guitar at the forefront accompanied by the tap of a drum and chimes or a vibraphone off in the distance. Displaying the intent that he expressed in the interview above, Callahan’s vocals are at the center, inhabiting the heart of the song. He begins singing:
With the grace of a corpse
In a riptide
I let go
And I slide, slide, slide
The writing in these opening lines is beautiful, matched by Callahan’s warm, inviting vocal delivery. This opening demonstrates Callahan’s quintessential ironic juxtaposition. He creates the immediate jarring image of a dead body floating in a river and then removes the obvious sense of horror, and instead chooses to convey “grace.” With that choice of word, he communicates the calmness and even the elegance of the narrator letting go and subjecting himself to the currents of the river. Callahan continues:
With an empty case by my side
An empty case
That’s my crime.
The narrator is saying that he is alone on this journey. No one is filling the “empty case” next to him, and by calling it “my crime,” the narrator expresses that not having a partner is a result of his actions and thus feels a sense of punishment for allowing this to happen. With that, Callahan moves to the chorus of the song:
And I sing
Say Valley Maker
To keep from cursing
Yes I sing
Say Valley Maker
To keep from cursing.
Every time the title phrase is sung, Callahan is joined in the vocals by Connie Lovatt, who is also playing bass. But instead of the regular Callahan vocal at the center as in the rest of the song, it’s an overdubbed recording of the two sounding as if their words are being sung from far away, echoing throughout the valley being referenced in the words. Callahan has to say these words in order “to keep from cursing.” It’s something he has to do in order to fight off his sense of guilt for being alone on the river as referenced in the first verse.
With the phrase “valley maker,” Callahan is invoking a river, but not just any river, a river imbued with the power to cut away the earth over millennia and create a valley. The phrase “valley maker” transmits a sense that the river is a compelling and even supernatural being out of myth, like a dragon or a griffin.
Rivers are a common reference point in Callahan’s songwriting iconography. When asked about the prominence of rivers in his work during a 2020 interview with Huck, Callan replied:
“Oceans are special. Like brains or gods or women. Rivers are more kinda everyday transcendence. Every day is a river. They are useful to us. Humans are rivers.”
There is a strand of Callahan’s writing that brings to mind nature writers. In the above quote, his phrase “everyday transcendence” resonates with the work of Annie Dillard, specifically her 1974 classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In that book, Dillard writes:
“Live water heals memories. I look up the creek and here it comes, the future, being borne aloft as on a winding succession of laden trays. You may wake and look from the window and breathe the real air, and say, with satisfaction or with longing, ‘This is it.’ But if you look up the creek, if you look up the creek in any weather, your spirit fills, and you are saying, with an exalting rise of the lungs, ‘Here it comes!’
Here it comes. In the far distance I can see the concrete bridge where the road crosses the creek. Under that bridge and beyond it the water is flat and silent, blued by distance and stilled by depth. It is so much sky, a fallen shred caught in the cleft of banks. But it pours. The channel here is straight as an arrow; grace itself is an archer. Between the dangling wands of bankside willows beneath the overarching limbs of tulip, walnut, and Osage orange, I see the creek pour down. It spills toward me streaming over a series of sandstone tiers, down, and down, and down. I feel as though I stand at the foot of an infinitely high staircase, down which some exuberant spirit is flinging tennis ball after tennis ball, eternally, and the one thing I want in the world is a tennis ball.”
During an episode of the Backlisted podcast, the writer Geoff Dyer refers to Dillard’s writing in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as the “visionary made literal.” The passage quoted above by Dillard beautifully illustrates Dyer’s assertion. She equates the future with looking upstream while the exultant feeling that results from this rush is likened to the bouncing of tennis balls. Like Dillard, Callahan conflates the commonplace with the extraordinary, displaying his sense of endless curiosity about the natural world and the actions of human beings.
The song moves back to the chord progression of the verse, but the narrator addresses the river directly:
River oh, river end
River oh, river end
River go, river bend.
For the “oh”s, Callahan adds an echo to his own voice as in the chorus to give the sense of being in a deep valley or canyon. “Say Valley Maker” shares many of the qualities from the Annie Dillard passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. As Dillard faces upstream, she senses the future approaching and allows it to overwhelm her. There’s a cleansing aspect of this action for Dillard as she embraces the future, writing “Live water heals memories.” As he considers his past and the lessons learned, Callahan accepts the path of the river to allow himself to move forward.
After the conclusion of that verse, the chord progression shifts and Callahan sings:
And when the river dries
Will you bury me in wood
Where the river dries
Will you bury me in stone.
These words recall the burial of Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae in another story set in the American West, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Gus, one of the last of the Texas Rangers, has been killed at the end of an epic cattle drive from Texas to Montana conducted with his partner Captain Woodrow F. Call. At the end of the novel, Call fulfills his promise to Gus to bury him by a spring in an orchard, a spot where he was truly happy. After transporting Gus’s dead body through most of the West such that the coffin is little more than a few boards barely hanging together, Call creates a grave for his friend out of stones and marks the grave with an old wooden sign that had been carved by Gus. The sign — now a grave marker — advertises the credentials of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, the group of cowboys that left the town of Lonesome Dove for Montana at the beginning of the story.
Callahan’s words in “Say Valley Maker” have parallels with the emblematic nature of Call’s burial of his friend Gus, namely the use of the same elements: the river, the stone, the wood. There is a deep sense of melancholy throughout McMurtry’s novel, but most notably in the marking of the grave. It signifies the end of a friendship and the larger sense of the closing of the West. Callahan’s song illustrates the same sense of mournful passing. Yet the song doesn’t end there as in Lonesome Dove, but rather leads to a greater understanding of the narrator’s place in the world as Callahan sings:
Oh, I never really realized
Death is what it meant
To make it on my own.
There’s certainly dark humor in this moment of realization, recalling the “empty case” floating alongside the narrator at the beginning of the song. As Callahan is equating death with a purposeful loneliness the narrator recognizes:
Because there is no love
Where there is no obstacle
And there is no love
Where there is no bramble
There is no love
On the hacked away plateau
And there is no love
In the unerring
And there is no love
On the one true path.
Once again, Callahan is utilizing natural imagery that attach to the mythic qualities of the American West, but he employs them to underline an awakened sense of understanding about the need for connection, love, and relationship. These qualities are often put aside in America’s celebration of the image of the solitary cowboy, the loner who succeeds through self-determination and grit. Callahan casts aside that symbol as he accepts that pushing through hardship and pain requires more than the empty case beside him.
The song transitions to its remarkable conclusion with Callahan singing, “Oh I cantered out here / Now I’m galloping back.” With that, Callahan and his musical colleagues accelerate the tempo of the song, with a much louder, fuller sound which mimics the feel and sense of pounding hoofbeats. The percussion especially in this moment is exquisitely played by drummer Jim White, known for his sympathetic yet arresting drumming style with many acts, most notably the band Dirty Three. As the band careens at this reckless pace across the landscape, Callahan returns to imagery used earlier in the song:
So bury me in wood
And I will splinter
Bury me in stone
And I will quake.
Callahan pushes back against a final internment in a defiance of death. He goes further by singing:
Bury me in water
And I will geyser
Bury me in fire
And I’m gonna phoenix
I’m gonna phoenix.
Invoking the river from earlier in the song, Callahan explodes any reasonable expectation of what he should do by saying, “I will geyser.” Shifting elements, Callahan spurns a burial in fire, by saying, “I’m gonna phoenix.” In a lovely poetic transference of language, he turns these nouns — “geyser” and “phoenix” — into verbs, creating new language from natural and supernatural phenomena as the only way to describe the need for love and connection as a requirement for a true rebirth.
“Say Valley Maker” is one of two songs on Smog’s A River Ain’t Too Much Love in which the river is the primary image. The other is “Rock Bottom Riser”
The narrative of “Rock Bottom Riser” tells a story of someone who leaves his family to dive into a river to chase a gold ring glinting at the murky bottom. As the narrator attempts to come back up from the bottom, he sees the sun reflected in the water looking like gold rings but is unable to grasp them. The only way the narrator is able to return is through the assistance of his mother, father, and sisters as “They pulled me out / Of this mighty mighty river.” Subsequently, the narrator of the song buys a guitar in order “To pledge my love to you.”
Whereas “Say Valley Maker” has the feeling of a hymn, “Rock Bottom Riser” is more of a fable in its telling. Both share similar themes of rebirth through the acceptance of connection.”Rock Bottom Riser” is more explicit in naming a mother, father, sisters, and the support of the family as essential for survival. It’s a grim tale, extenuating the very real possibility of the death of its main character. The two songs work in concert as “Rock Bottom Riser” carries the specter of death throughout while the galloping ending of “Say Valley Maker” demonstrates the capacity for love and wonder of its narrator as he ventures out into the world alive with possibilities.
From the quotes by Callahn included at the beginning of this post looking back on the time of A River Ain’t Too Much Love, it’s evident that these two river songs describe a period of transition for him. Both “Say Valley Maker” and “Rock Bottom Riser” are powerful statements of self and purpose that reflect a new directness and intent in Callahan’s writing and music. A purely autobiographical reading of the songs distract from the universal resonance of these stories of rebirth and acceptance of one’s place in the world. After all, “humans are rivers.”
Photo: “Horseshoe Bend in Arizona” by Preecerichie, 16 February 2021, 15:45:53. Shared in accordance to the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. No alterations have been made to the original photo.
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